The end of Yeats: work and women in his last days in France
Yeats had a late creative surge – including ‘one of the greatest ever death-bed utterances’ – before he died surrounded by his muses in France 75 years ago
WB Yeats circa 1933. Photographs: Library of Congress
Yeats with his wife George. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Seamus Heaney’s article about Yeats in this newspaper on January 28th, 1989, marking the 50th anniversary of Yeats’s death
William Butler Yeats died 75 years ago today at 2.30pm in a small upstairs room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in Roquebrune Cap Martin. The room had a wrought-iron balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, his final vista. Yeats’s wife, George, and his last mistress, Edith Shackleton Heald, were at his bedside. They took turns holding vigil over his body that night.
In 1937, Yeats’s Irish friends had collected money to make his old age more comfortable. At the dinner where it was presented, Yeats said it would enable him and George to winter in the south of France, where the climate would be more kind to his angina-stricken heart. “My glory was I had such friends,” he wrote in The Municipal Gallery Revisited, the poem he penned for the occasion.
Yeats and his wife spent his last two winters at the Idéal Séjour. “It was a simple place,” says Oxford professor Roy Foster, author of the two-volume WB Yeats: A Life. “They were watching their pennies.”
George handled the train tickets and logistics, after which Heald showed up to keep the ageing poet company. Lady Dorothy Wellesley, to whom Yeats also had a romantic attachment, invited them to dine at her nearby villa, La Bastide.
The winter of 1938-1939 was exceptionally cold, even on the French Riviera, and the freezing temperatures aggravated Yeats’s heart condition. “He disappeared in the dead of winter . . . / What instruments we have agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day,” WH Auden wrote in tribute.
Today, the Idéal Séjour has been rechristened the Résidence le Louisiane, and refurbished with ugly verandas and a swimming pool. For €700-€900, one can rent a two-bedroom apartment there for a week. A simple plaque, placed by the Princess Grace Irish Library in 1995, reads: “William Butler Yeats, Nobel Prize winner, lived and died here, 1938-1939.”
On the night of January 28th-29th, George Yeats gave Heald the manuscript of Are You Content? and The Spirit Medium, poems written on either side of a sheet of paper in the last days of Yeats’s life. George also gave Yeats’s fountain pen and small Oxford dictionary to Heald.
To Wellesley, George gave the manuscript of Yeats’s last play, The Death of Cuchulain, which Yeats completed just before New Year’s Day. A week before his death, Wellesley wrote that she “had never seen [Yeats] in better health, wits, charm or vitality”. But he took a turn for the worse, and on January 27th George asked Wellesley to “come back and light the flame”.
Surrounded by women
Like his alter ego Cuchulain in the play he had just written, Yeats was dying surrounded by women. “These interesting women rallied around him, trying to keep him alive, trying to keep him inspired,” recounts Joseph Hassett, author of WB Yeats and the Muses.
Hassett’s book recounts Yeats’s romances with nine women, “and there were others,” he says. “What were these relationships? They were passionate. They had an erotic element. What more does the reader need to know? In them he found creative stimulus.”
“If I die, bury me up there [in the churchyard at Roquebrune],” Yeats told George. “And then in a year’s time, when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”